A member of the woodwind family, the recorder’s history is not well known, although examples of it can be found in medieval paintings, and what appears to be a recognizable recorder-type instrument disabled dating back to the Iron Age has been found – although it is made of sheep bone rather than wood! The instrument, however, often gets a bad press, largely due to people’s recollections of struggling to learn the instrument in the classroom – or perhaps being unfortunate enough to have to teach the instrument to several new classes each and every year.
Considering the fact that it is so commonly used as a learning instrument, it is actually quite difficult to get a smooth, warm tone out of a recorder, and very easy to end up with a screech or a bending note. However, with practice, the recorder can be made to produce a beautiful sound, with its distinct warm, woody tones and even vibrato. The instrument was certainly taken seriously during the Renaissance; Bach, Purcell and Vivaldi wrote music for it.
There are plenty of very good reasons why the recorder has entrenched itself in the national psyche as a school instrument. First, it is relatively cheap to make, consisting basically of a tube with holes and a mouthpiece – there are no moving parts. This is enhanced by the fact that they can also be made of plastic and therefore mass-produced. Second, they are durable, tough instruments that will withstand a bit of abuse. Third, they are monophonic, so simple tunes can be learnt on them that do not tax the young player too much, and therefore sheet music is much easier to read. Fourth, they are small and easy to carry about in a satchel or bag. And fifth, they never need tuning as they are pre-tuned – there are no strings to slacken.
Unfortunately, rigidly observed school curricula quite often meant that people with no interest in music were forced to learn the instrument, and those who were interested might not have been overenthusiastic about playing rounds of London’s Burning with the teacher doing a Toscanini at the front of the class. This could explain the humour and scornful nostalgia associated with the instrument. In mitigation, however, nobody leaves school without knowing that all cows eat grass and that every good boy deserves something beginning with an F, be it food, football, fudge or fun – or should that be five-a-day?
Range and Fingering
A recorder has a range of just over two octaves, with the lowest note being the tone produced when every hole is closed with the fingers. Since most learning instruments will be in the key of C, that will be the tone produced. Recorders do come in other keys, however. F is also a common key, and more specialist instruments come in D, E flat and G. A little known fact is that recorders are actually chromatic – they can play all twelve tones in an octave including sharps and flats. This is done by half-covering certain holes, but isn’t required in Frere Jacques.
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